I picked out The House on the Strand because I wanted to participate in the Daphne du Maurier reading week hosted by Ali in May, but for various reasons could not post this review in time. However, I was glad to have read this book, since it turned out to be quite excellent.
The House on the Strand is an excellent, engrossing story of a man literally caught between two worlds, where du Maurier deftly weaves in elements of time travel and horror to offer a fascinating glimpse into the psyche of the central character.
When the book opens Richard (Dick) Young, our narrator, is at a crossroads in his life. He is on a sabbatical, having left a plum publishing in London, possibly suffering from burnout. For rest and relaxation, he is spending the summer at a country home called Kilmarth that belongs to his good friend, the charismatic Magnus. Magnus is now a successful scientist, and the two strike up an agreement. Dick can spend the holidays at the house with his family – Vita, his American wife and his stepsons – who are scheduled to join him later. In return, Dick has to agree to become a test subject for a new psychedelic drug that is the focus of Magnus’ research.
The drug will transport Dick back in time, in this case the fourteenth century, but merely as an observer, and he will not be able to participate in the actual events that unfold there. Magnus also warns him of the side effects that are likely to occur the moment Dick is violently brought back to the present – nausea, dizziness, trembling and so on.
As Dick, highly influenced by the more strong willed Magnus, starts consuming the drug, his trips to the past, to the 14th century begin to take on a vivid, mesmeric quality.
The first thing I noticed was the clarity of the air, and then the sharp green colour of the land. There was no softness anywhere. The distant hills did not blend into the sky but stood out like rocks, so close that I could almost touch them, their proximity giving me that shock of surprise and wonder which a child feels looking for the first time through a telescope. Nearer to me, too, each object had the same hard quality, the very grass turning to single blades, springing from a younger, harsher soil than the soil I knew.
I had expected – if I had expected anything – a transformation of another kind: a tranquil sense of wellbeing, the blurred intoxication of a dream, with everything about me misty, ill defined; not this tremendous impact, a reality more vivid than anything hitherto experienced, sleeping or awake.
Dick is entranced by that era, it’s depiction of courtly intrigues, murder, infidelity, and particularly danger to a beautiful noblewoman by the name of Isolda Carminowe with whom Dick is besotted.
Dick’s primary guide in this era, if you will, is a steward called Roger who acts as a liaison between various family members, who although closely related, are at odds with one another. Isolda Carminowe, in particular, married to Oliver Carminowe, is engaged in a secret affair with Otto Bodrugan. The latter is also married with a son, and had rebelled to overthrow the King in a failed attempt. These aspects begin to take a fast hold on our narrator.
Slowly but surely, that 14th century sphere, with its people and landscapes, starts to thrill Dick to the point of addiction.
This, I think, was the essence of what it meant to me. To be bound, yet free; to be alone, yet in their company; to be born in my own time yet living, unknown, in theirs.
When Vita and the boys surprise him by landing at the house a few days earlier than expected, all of Dick’s best laid plans of experimenting with the drug go awry. While he mechanically performs his duties of a father and husband, arranging activities for his family to enjoy, it’s clear he is increasingly fraught with anxiety and that his mind is elsewhere.
Vita senses this, and her perceptive questioning slowly begins to drive Dick up the wall. Despite the difficulty of being by himself, Dick does manage to find some opportunities to experiment secretly. But the growing frequency with which he does so complicates matters and Dick’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic. In his confused state of mind, the two worlds begin to merge. This both alarms Vita and alienates Dick driving a further wedge into their marriage.
When Magnus conveys his desire to come and spend the weekend with them, the stage is set for an unforeseen, dramatic and horrific chain of events.
One of the remarkable aspects of the novel is du Maurier’s evocation of landscapes in both the time periods. Across six centuries, the landscape has, of course, irrevocably altered, and yet its core essence has endured. For instance, where there are rows of houses along the sea now, they did not exist then because it was all a body of water all those years ago, and this has been brilliantly portrayed by the author.
The other fascinating point is the concept of time travel. Du Maurier has cleverly employed this trick…it’s not the time travel aspect in itself that interests her, but what it signifies – an escape from the present reality of stasis, uncertainty, and bitterness.
Magnus is in the throes of a mid-life crisis, filled with existential angst. Vita’s brother Joe has offered him a job in his publishing firm in New York, which Vita encourages him to accept given that he has a family to support, but Dick remains vary of the sameness of the new job, and the prospect of starting afresh in a completely new country fails to entice him.
As he keeps postponing his intentions of making that critical decision, the lure of the psychedelic drug and its escape to another realm, a much simpler one as perceived by him, intoxicates Dick pulling him deeper into an abyss.
“The world we carry inside us produces answers, sometimes. A way of escape. A flight from reality. You didn’t want to live either in London or in New York. The fourteenth century made an exciting antidote to both.”
I’ll admit though that while the 14th century was a source of constant fascination for Dick, I found those sections to be the least interesting in the book. Somehow, the people seemed one-dimensional, which could possibly be attributed to the fact that Dick was just a casual observer there and could not really interact with those characters nor could they perceive his presence.
To me the present, modern day world of Dick – his personal dilemma and his on-the-edge relationship with Vita – had much more depth and was therefore very satisfying and absorbing, notably for the way du Maurier has effectively created an atmosphere of chilling unease and creeping dread.
The House on the Strand, then, is a wonderful heady concoction of history, horror and time travel highlighting to greater effect du Maurier’s excellent storytelling skills. Sometimes the past comes back to haunt us in the present, but for Dick, the consequences might just prove deadlier, paving the way for his downfall.